Written by Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Manu Koch.
Music seems like an interesting way to make a living. For so many it’s their lifeblood or most desperate passion and for some in can suddenly become a way to make rent every month. There’s always the concern of the passion slipping away and it only becoming a means of survival. As well as fear of the band breaking up and essentially being fired from the business you started.
Jazz can be a little different though. With a lot of jazz, you get the possibility of playing with a “freelance musician.” Yes, there are freelance writers who put up blog posts about why “Rugrats” is timeless programming but there are also musicians out there who willingly “play around” in different groups and collectives. Manu Koch falls under this category. Koch is a native of Switzerland that grew up playing classical piano in his hometown of Baar.
“I naturally was drawn to making up my own songs and improvising always came easier to me than reading music. A couple of years later I began taking piano lessons at the local music school. During the period of 13 years I learned pieces of the European classical tradition by composers such as Bach, Brahms and Debussy. My teacher was very patient and focused mostly on sound and how to achieve a wide range of dynamics on the piano rather then have me learn as many pieces as possible.”
From Switzerland, Koch moved to Boston where he attended Berklee School of Music. He already had the markings of a serious musician and his reason for coming to the United States was an immense desire to play music here. We as Americans like to put up a front of world travelers when we go to Rome but guys like Manu, they walk the walk and talk the talk.
It was in Boston that he got hooked up with musicians from across the world and he developed a global musicianship.
He says about this cultural learning experience, “By learning about multiple musical cultures and the various rhythms, phrasings, harmonies, scales and most obviously with different languages involved you can combine some of those elements in new ways. You don’t have to be a master of it all but know enough to understand where those elements can link together. Of course I wasn’t aware of all this in the beginning but more and more this became apparent. This is not a new phenomenon since it happened throughout the history of music. Different cultures are coming together and creating a melting pot. It’s just broader now.”
After his time in Boston, he relocated to New York because, “It seemed like the next logical thing to do and it was always my dream to live in New York.” He was attracted to the extreme amount of musical diversity New York offered, and he knew he could grow here as a musician. However, getting by was the first hurdle. He developed his freelancer sensibility in the city, “Partially because of necessity to make a living but also because I love many musical cultures and genres.”
Eventually he stopped doing this because he wanted to focus on only a few projects and found that even when you’re running around and rehearsing with different folks, you most likely won’t make decent money. Die-hard purists think it’s crass to combine money and music but at a certain point, Manu just wanted to do what he was good at.
Slowing down on the freelance front, he finally got the chance to release his debut full-length album Triple Life in early March of 2011. It is a musical journey that takes the listener from Brazil to New York City and some directions where jazz hasn’t even ventured yet. One of the singles “Upper Leads” is a more electronic-based groove, complete with hand-claps, vocal sampling, and Koch’s signature jazzy keyboard playing. It’s nine tracks long, with many of the songs exceeding five minutes. Not the type of record that can be lazily thrown on while driving to work, it lends itself to a night in or a dinner party with a bevy of your multicultural friends. Because it’s self-released, Manu could go in any direction he wanted.
When asked about the significance of its title, Manu gave a very evolutionary answer:
“The main symbolical meaning signifies that after growing up and living in Switzerland for the first 20 years of my life and then learning and collecting my musical experiences as a student and sideman for the roughly next 20 years of my life in the US I now have arrived at my third phase as a composer and bandleader where everything adds up to my own musical vision.”
He is by no means a young guy but he has the hunger for learning and living that is lost on a lot of people his age. However, we still had to know, does jazz have a sense of humor? Being a musical genre and community that many are not familiar with, the question looms… Why so serious?
“Jazz is a very broad term and means many different things to many people. In my opinion there is lots of jazz that has humor in it. Looking at it historically there is a reason why jazz didn’t remain simply a vehicle for entertainment or dance music like it was during the swing era. There is nothing wrong with making people think or feel pain, it’s a form of expression. Jazz has changed a lot over the years. It started out as music from the streets and eventually became institutionalized and with this process a lot of its spirit and soul got lost.”
Whether jazz is making us laugh or making us dance, it’s all about finding the balance for Manu Koch. Balance with a musical career, balance with the different stages of his growth and balance between focus and pleasure. Where do you find yours?
Listen to Manu Koch’s debut full-length Triple Life by clicking here. You can find him at the Blue Note Jazz Club on March 30, 2013 with his band Filtron M.